Spotlighting U.S. Soft-Power in Latin America

While the U.S imperial presence has emerged as a more or less acknowledged fact of the 21st century, popular references to U.S. power often gloss over a complex, amorphous system of organization and domination.1 What debate and discussion of empire there is in the United States has been almost entirely confined to its most pronounced, military expressions.

September 4, 2007

While the U.S imperial presence has emerged as a more or less acknowledged fact of the 21st century, popular references to U.S. power often gloss over a complex, amorphous system of organization and domination.1 What debate and discussion of empire there is in the United States has been almost entirely confined to its most pronounced, military expressions.

Yet in terms of the actual administration and continuation of the current global order, the military occupation of foreign territories is looking more and more like an Achilles’ heel. And while the Bush Administration is clearly not averse to deploying “hard power,” it has also expanded key civil and political mechanisms—“soft power”—in order to safeguard U.S. interests worldwide.

The “promotion of democracy,” for example, emerged as a central expression of U.S. soft power during the Reagan Administration. In 1983, Reagan launched the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), with the mandate to “foster the infrastructure of democracy” around the world. “I just decided that this nation, with its heritage of Yankee traders, ought to do a little selling of the principles of democracy,” Reagan explained in a speech at the Endowment’s inauguration.2 Since then, the NED and other democracy-promoting governmental and nongovernmental institutions have intervened successfully on behalf of “democracy”—actually a very particular form of low-intensity democracy chained to pro-market economics—in countries from Nicaragua to the Philippines, Ukraine to Haiti, overturning unfriendly “authoritarian” governments (many of which the United States had previously supported) and replacing them with handpicked pro-market allies.

Over the past 20 years, the “Yankee traders” at the NED and elsewhere have expanded “democracy promotion” into a multibillion-dollar global industry. As President George W. Bush correctly pointed out to members of the International Republican Institute (IRI, a key U.S. democracy-promoting institution) last year, “the business of promoting democratic change” is a “growth industry.”3

Like many other industries in the United States and Europe—and despite passionate rhetoric praising the efficiency of unregulated markets—the “democracy business” is highly subsidized. In 1980, the United States and the European Union each spent $20 million on democracy-related foreign aid. By 2001, this had risen to $571 million and $392 million, respectively. In 2006 the United States is projected to spend $2 billion on “democracy assistance,” while in 2003—the latest figures available—the EU spent $3.5 billion.4

By combining cooptation, coercion and deep pockets, groups like the NED and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) have at times allied themselves with antidemocratic elites, and at other times capitalized on movements and individuals that were genuinely dedicated to democratizing their countries, setting the parameters of the debate by positioning a particular definition of pro-market representative democracy as the only antiauthoritarian option. U.S. and European organizations have disbursed massive amounts of money, funding some groups and projects while ignoring others, favoring those who share their general ideological conceptions while isolating those that do not. There is very little transparency involved in the process. Thanks to serious limitations in freedom-of-information legislation in the United States and elsewhere, curious parties have trouble tracing grants that are often passed along a chain of sub-grantees. Accurate information about which groups receive funding and why is extremely hard to come by.

Of course, First World governments clearly have a large stake in the spread of a particular kind of democracy. That’s because, as a former assistant secretary of defense suggests in a recent book for the Council on Foreign Relations, “contrary to what some believe, democracy and capitalism do not spread inexorably on their own.”5 The statement could, perhaps, be restated to say, “capitalist democracy does not spread inexorably on its own.”

In Latin America, however, a new generation of left and center-left leaders is challenging U.S. power in the region and experimenting with home-grown alternatives to the Washington Consensus of restrictive democracies and elite-based economics. These movements are articulating more expansive conceptions of both economic and political life, demanding (and in some cases practicing) the democratization of both, as Zander Navarro notes in these pages.

This cresting “pink tide” has already radically turned around Venezuela and Bolivia, with Argentina, Chile, Uruguay and Brazil cautiously moving in similar directions. And more than any other single year, 2006 brought this hemispheric political shift into focus, with 10 presidential elections in the region—all of which included credible challenges to U.S. interests. Most of these left and quasi-left leaders (and the national interests they represent) are actually quite compatible with capitalist democracy on their own. But the leftward shift represents not just the election of cooptable presidents, but the radicalization of the citizens who voted for them.

The 2006 electoral cycle, then, seemed a tremendously charged moment in two key respects. The year promised intriguing and dramatic changes in Latin America’s political climate, with progressive movements mounting strong and successful challenges in a number of the region’s most critical elections. On the flip side, however, Latin America’s shift to the left was widely interpreted as a threat by the Bush Administration. Considering the volatility—and the stakes—of this political moment, we felt that some serious debate and discussion about “pro-democracy” interventions were in order.

Our interest in these issues, and our awareness that they would likely never make it into the mainstream media, spurred us to organize an academic conference in order to generate a more serious and theoretical discussion about U.S. democracy promotion in the context of Latin America’s leftward turn. With questions and criticisms of our own, we sought to create a space in which both proponents and dissenters could address certain questions: What is the link, if one exists, between U.S. political policies and U.S. economic policies toward Latin America? Why has the U.S. policy of democracy promotion provoked criticism from certain Latin American leaders, civil society groups and general publics? Is critics’ use of the term “intervention” misplaced in this discussion, or not? What sorts of social and political movements does democracy promotion encourage, and which does it discourage or ignore? And, finally, does the recent rise to power of leaders whose views diverge from the Washington Consensus stand as a measure of democracy promotion’s failure, or of its success?

We wanted to hold a debate, but one in which marginalized (but by no means marginal) critical positions were fairly represented; for this reason, we gave the event the provocative title “In the Name of Democracy: U.S. Electoral Intervention in the Americas.” The idea was to bring “democracy promoters” and their critics together; we hoped that instead of both sides speaking into the wind, they could actually speak to each other. It seemed simple enough on paper.

But dragging representatives from the various ends of this highly polarized debate into a room together turned out to be no mean feat. The leading critics of democracy promotion, some of them already our friends and colleagues, were relatively easy to enlist; the practitioners and proponents of democracy promotion, however, were more difficult to convince. In several confidential conversations with individuals we had asked to be panelists (and who declined), we were accused of setting up “an ideological trap,” of being “inflammatory,” of inviting critics whose published works were supposedly “sheer fantasy” with “no commitment to the truth” and informed that the presence of certain of our more critical colleagues had significantly “chilled” the response of the Washington community to what otherwise might have been a well-received—i.e., moderate—event.

As organizers, we genuinely sought to begin a high-level and public discussion that, as far as we could tell, wasn’t taking place in Washington’s boardrooms. It was frustrating, yet telling, to discover the extent to which certain sectors were uninterested in having that discussion, and to see the ways in which the very idea of a trenchant debate was dismissively labeled a “trap.” The democracy promoters who did agree to come represented their positions with grace and aplomb, and engaged in an honest and direct interchange of ideas with their opponents. But the road to that interchange was, unfortunately, paved with rejection letters from other members of “the Washington community.”

The conference took place at Yale University—hardly the world’s most subversive location—in April 2006, and once we were finally able to get everyone into the auditorium together, the discussion was extremely lively. Panelists debated the very meaning of democracy, the long history of U.S. interventions in Latin America, the issue of American credibility on the world stage, the implications of the 2006 electoral cycle in the hemisphere, and more. Because of the depth of the conversation and its timeliness, NACLA—whose Contributing Editor Fred Rosen participated in the conference as a moderator—graciously invited us to share this discussion by devoting this Report to our special forum on democracy promotion.

This Report, “In the Name of Democracy,” features seven of our conference panelists—Greg Grandin, Jorge I. Domínguez, William I. Robinson, Michael Coppedge, Zander Navarro, Bryant Garth and Héctor Mondragón—who agreed to rework their panel presentations into short essays for this issue. Grandin and Domínguez establish a historical context for the debates, while Robinson and Coppedge’s incisive, and competing, analyses of the contested definitions of terms such as “democracy,” “intervention” and “polyarchy” establish a theoretical context for the contributors’ broader discussions. These broader discussions address the failure of the Washington Consensus to protect economic rights in Latin America; the United States’ low credibility when it comes to promoting democracy; the role of local Latin American elites in inviting U.S. political and economic collaboration; the mechanics by which democracy promotion is actually conducted; and the need for socially responsive forms of democratic governance that respond to the stated desires of Latin American publics.

In our continuing efforts to make these discussions public and open, we hope that policy makers and critics from across the political spectrum will become increasingly motivated to participate and to engage one another’s ideas, not only within Washington but also across the North-South divide. The very nature of the democratic ideal demands that any efforts in the name of “democracy,” whatever one’s definition of the term, take place in the open air, with the full light of scrutiny upon them.

Jonah Gindin is a freelance writer and researcher. Kirsten Weld is a PhD student in Latin American history at Yale University. They are both members of In the Name of Democracy, a research collective examining democracy promotion and political intervention (

For more articles featured in the new issue of the NACLA Report on the Americas, "In the Name of Democracy: U.S. Intervention in the Americas Today," visit:|1.


1. References to the United States as an empire have found their way into mainstream discourse, as a recent NACLA Report points out ("Empire and Dissent,” September/October 2005).

2. “Remarks at a White House Ceremony Inaugurating the National Endowment for Democracy,” December 16, 1983,

3 . “Supporting Emerging Democracies,” Renaissance Hotel, Washington, D.C. (May 17, 2005),

4. For an estimate of U.S. fiscal year 2006 spending on democracy, see Don Pressley and Lawrence Groo, “Streamlining U.S. Democracy Assistance,” p. 114; for other figures on U.S. and European “democracy assistance,” see Kim Campbell, Sean C. Carroll, “Sustaining Democracy’s Last Wave,” p. 47-49, Georgetown Journal of International Affairs (62: Summer/Fall, 2005).

5. Lawrence J. Korb, A New National Security Strategy in an Age of Terrorists, Tyrants, and Weapons of Mass Destruction: Three Options Presented as Presidential Speeches (Council on Foreign Relations Press: 2003), full text available here as a PDF file:


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